While many Canadians spend October preparing Halloween costumes and cooking Thanksgiving dinners, for midwife Sarah Cressman of Guelph, Ont. it’s also the month when she said hello and goodbye to her son, Luca.
Cressman’s water broke less than five months into her first pregnancy. With her health at risk, she laboured for 12 hours but there was no chance Luca would survive. On Oct. 5, 2008, Cressman and her then-partner left the hospital without their son.
“The smell, the quality of the light — there’s a sadness that’s imbued in this time of year for me,” she told HuffPost Canada.
Cressman’s experience is intensely personal, but October is a time that people around the world find ways to “break the silence” around reproductive loss, particularly on the 15th, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.
The Canadian Paediatric Society calls pregnancy loss “one of the most profound losses a person can experience,” but it’s still surrounded by secrecy, shame, and silence.
WATCH: How to support someone who’s had a miscarriage. Story continues below.
Few resources for LGBTQ2 pregnancy loss
Aditi Loveridge, founder of Calgary’s Pregnancy & Infant Loss Support Centre, told HuffPost Canada the conversation is often dominated by “a white, heteronormative, cisgendered community and culture.” While general awareness is increasing, LGBTQ2 individuals, among other marginalized communities, are left grieving in the gaps.
The Sunnybrook Pregnancy and Infant Loss Network notes there are approximately six stillbirths in every 1,000 births in Canada, and as many as one out of five pregnancies end in a miscarriage.
“But this affects everybody,” Loveridge said, noting that many narratives are left out, from queer women to trans men. “It’s not specific to women, it’s not specific to heterosexuals — it’s people. So it’s time that we start to really look at that as a whole.”
Christa Craven, the dean of faculty development and a professor at Ohio’s Wooster college, says the spectrum of loss for LGBTQ2 individuals is often more nuanced than is typically represented. In addition to miscarriage, stillbirth, and spontaneous abortion, there are also losses during the adoption process and losses of infertility and sterility.
“There may not be a physical pregnancy someone lost, but rather, their dreams of having a family in a particular way,” Craven said.
Craven herself experienced a second trimester loss; when she and her female partner went to look for resources, “we found very little with families like ours.” This experience would eventually lead her to write Reproductive Loses: Challenges to LGBTQ Family-Making, and the companion resource website. During her interviews for these resources, she said, “most of the people would say to me, ‘I thought I was the only queer person to ever experience this and it’s so lonely.’”
Being a sexual or gender minority can add layers to grief
The loneliness of losing a pregnancy or infant isn’t unique — but being a sexual or gender minority can add layers. On one hand, Cressman said she knows her story is predominantly a “human experience of love and hope and heartbreak and grief,” one which connected her to people from all walks of life going through similar things.
On the other hand, being queer and in a same-sex relationship impacted the way she moved through that experience; she doesn’t remember seeing any families like hers in resources, nor did she talk to any other LGBTQ2 individuals experiencing loss.
For queer and trans people, becoming a parent is far from simple. It may involve assisted reproductive technologies, navigating the difficult path of adoption or surrogacy, or — for trans men — interrupting gender-affirming treatments in order to become pregnant.
Craven said support for LGBTQ2 people must consider these differences; for instance, “not falling back on some of the ways that people talk about loss like ‘oh, don’t worry you can just try again’. That has a real different resonance if you’ve already spent all the money that you’ve saved for this and experienced a loss.”
WATCH: What not to say to someone who lost a pregnancy. Story continues below.
Like many other same-sex female couples, Cressman and her then-partner chose to use an acquaintance as their sperm donor. But losing Luca brought unexpected questions about the donor’s role.
“What was his experience of the loss? How much information did he deserve to have about it? He was in this strange position: biologically, this was his child that died. But socially, he was very removed from it,” Cressman said.
These were important considerations, coming at a time when Cressman’s grief was crushing.
“There’s also something about the fact that we were two women who made this decision to make this baby in this unconventional way in this unconventional family,” Cressman said. “To some people, what we were doing is at best weird and at worst wrong. I wanted everything to be good, and to prove that we could do it … It was like I somehow failed — failed our community.”
Loss can feel like a failure
Thoughts like these are incredibly common in LGBTQ2 reproductive loss, Craven said, and make sense in this political and historical moment. The fight for same-sex marriage and enhanced legal rights has put more emphasis on an allegedly ideal progression for LGBTQ2 people: Meet someone, settle down, have kids.
When this is disrupted, “there’s a certain reticence even within LGBTQ communities of talking about loss because it feels like a failure. I’d never argue it is a failure but the feeling of failure… I think, is heightened for LGBTQ+ folks,” Craven said.
Queer and trans people who have experienced reproductive loss also struggle to find affirming supports both in community or online. Many Canadians, especially non-binary and transgender patients, experience homophobia and transphobia in medical settings already, which can be compounded by intersecting identities.
“When I experienced my first loss, I almost died due to the colour of my skin,” Loveridge said. “I was dealing with the trauma of my first pregnancy loss, and on top of that, the trauma of the racism I experienced. It’s the same in the LGBTQ community.”
There are intersections, she said, which can’t be ignored.
As a person of colour and the parent of an LGBTQ child, Loveridge founded the Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support Centre to address systemic gaps and support marginalized communities.
“We’re not just saying the words ‘safe space,’” she emphasized, “but actually doing the work and understanding why [racial, sexual, and gender minorities] weren’t accessing support.”
The centre’s staff go through inclusivity training by LGBTQ2 community leaders, their marketing is inclusive, and they engage community members in conversations about their own needs, for instance.
Cressman would have loved to receive more inclusive supports, but there were also many elements she said she’s grateful for, like her amazing queer midwife. The times when both Cressman and her then-partner were acknowledged as grieving parents made a world of difference. But Loveridge and Craven point out how non-gestational parents are still too often ignored, especially in queer and trans families.
“My heart broke in a way that let in so much light,” Cressman said, reflecting on the gratitude she now has for her two children, and the deep compassion she’s developed as a midwife.
While loss looks different for everyone, Cressman’s metaphor might resonate on a deeper level: Truly “breaking the silence” spills light on marginalized voices, and fills the gaps in resources, social supports, and representation.
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